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He was an old man, no getting around that. He had lived the life of aesthetic and was going to die alone. It was a fate he had founded for himself early on in his life, deemed it a tragedy of God. He wore it about him like a cloak, acted it out and grieved about everything. His façade was tactful. It was never too dramatic, too alarming. His life would be the quiet masterpiece only appreciated by students in decades to come.

He had decided this from a young age.

He wasn’t an artist. His attempts to paint proved uninspired; he could never imagine a world in watercolour and didn’t have the talent to replicate it anyway. He tried to write, as so many of the greatest had done, but found he could never finish – he didn’t have anything he wanted to say. His photographer’s eye was blind. His musical ear hampered.

He was dedicated only to living as a tragic masterpiece. He decided on this the day the only woman he had ever loved married another man. She came up to him now, and with a single finger dragged his newspaper down into his lap. “The bird died today,” she said. “I told you it would.”

He swallowed a sigh, became fat with it. “I was thinking about mortality recently,” he said.

“You’re always pretending to think about the morbid bits of life.” She sat next to him.

“I’m not pretending,” he said, as he has said so many times before. “I’m not.”

He knew her intimately, knew she would be rolling her eyes in a half-hearted flutter, knew she was trying to settle into father’s coat, and failing at it. “Lucy hasn’t stopped crying,” she said. “I sympathised with her, to begin with, but she’s become so bratty about it.”

“It’s her mother’s influence,” he said, not as an opinion, but as an echo.

“Shut it.”

“What now?”

“Don’t quote me, Peter, I’m tired.”

“Does one have something to do with the other?”

She frowned at him, then. “You’re very quiet today.”

“My mortality has subdued me.”

“Mine has invigorated me.”

She liked to do that, always had. She had a knack for it. She could carry on entire conversations parroting, and, he found, very few people notice. He had no patience for it today. “I feel calm,” he clarified. “I haven’t felt this calm since before you told me you were marrying a man I didn’t know exist.”

“Peter,” she said.

“When you told me he died I went to Scott’s End and drank. I drank and I laughed and I celebrated. I hated him beyond measure. I was obsessed with hating him. I was obsessed with you. I went to your wedding and felt like I was dying. I was a tragedy, and only later did I realise I was a beautiful tragedy. The looks your mother gave me, when I gave your speech. I never realised until that point just how poignant being pitied could be.”

“What are you doing?”

“I told you, I’m contemplating my mortality.”

“And you chose today of all days, to…what – exact revenge?”

He shook his head. “I enjoy being pitied most of all. No one else understands it. No one else seems to appreciate the attempt at empathy for a sad soul. I realised on the day I watched you marry him, that my life was a tragedy, and I was determined to make it beautiful.”

“Tragedy is the ugliest invention by mankind.”

“Only to the present.”

She was quiet, for a moment. The wind picked apart some of her grey hair and it fell next to her ear. “Am I going to find you’ve killed yourself tomorrow?”

“You phrase things so coldly.”

“Don’t ignore my question.”

“I married myself to you, but you know that. Our affair was the happiest and most pitiful period in my entire life. I hate that you went back to him. No, I’m sorry, you never left him. You pitied me. My mother pitied her small, bullied son whose father couldn’t understand him. You have always pitied me – the sad, lonely boy who worshipped the ground you walked on. I think you pitied me more than anyone else. That is why I love you.”

“Peter,” she reached her hands out and held his face so that he would finally look at her, at those dark, sterile brown eyes that have captivated him for more than fifty years.

“You can’t say you’ve never pitied me, Emma. That you haven’t thought I was the most pathetic existence in your life. You come to me whenever you are at your worst. When you found out he was having an affair. After your miscarriages, when you lost your job, when he died, when your son died. Your little baby boy. We had never spent so much time together.”

She slapped him. It wasn’t quick, or particularly hard. He let her do it. Let her repeat the action. This was the moment his life lead to. This was the climax of his quiet tragedy.

“You are pathetic,” she said. “Sad and lonely.”

“And you love all sad and lonely things,” he said. “It took me a long time to realise that the reason we never worked was because you hate us, too.”

She turned away from him, and sat in silence. She wouldn’t leave him. He was the only thing that she had left. She clung to her things with a possessive mania he had yet to meet in anyone else.

The tale of his life was loving a woman who was more tragic than he was. She, who wore her beauty as a young woman like a shield, and then used it as a sword. Who loved everything that worshipped her, who clung to it and who knew the pain she caused. Who married an adulterer she couldn’t leave. Who lost three children before they were born. Who lost a son and inherited a granddaughter who was too much like a daughter-in-law she hated.

Who was friends with a man who did nothing in his life but revel in how much he was pitied and how pitiful it was to love someone so broken.

“Why,” he said finally, “did you not leave him?”

“I made a choice, and I stuck to it.”

“That’s a poor answer.”

“I made a poor choice, and I felt guilty.”

“Why?”

She sighed, and looked at him, and he knew.

  • Cassandra Kosmayer

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